Cancellation of school charitable exercise draws complaints from parents, students

Cancellation of school charitable exercise draws complaints from parents, students

The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — About 60 students, parents and supporters protested the cancellation of a long-running middle school charity and math project at the Westerly School Committee meeting Wednesday.

The meeting had been set up in an administrative conference room in Babcock Hall but had to be moved to the auditorium to accommodate the number of attendees.

The project, led by Rob Gouvin, a math teacher at Westerly Middle School, requires students to raise money, shop for canned goods and assemble food baskets that are delivered to the WARM Center during the last week of school in December. Students also participate in a fundraising math contest and learn to create a budget using funds raised for a shopping trip to Stop & Shop to buy the canned goods. Gouvin has been running the project for the last 19 years and was named the district teacher of the year for 2017-18.

Superintendent Mark Garceau said he canceled the project because it subtracted from classroom instruction.

“The preparation soaks up an entire week of the last week in December and no work is done in class, so there are no lessons that week — an entire week of lost instructional time,” he said. “I’m more than willing to look at other avenues by which we support those in our community but we have an issue with the loss of instructional time.”

Parents, middle school students, and high school students who did the project as middle schoolers spoke against Garceau’s position.

Jennifer Brinton, a mother of four students attending the Westerly Schools, said there was a misperception that the project eclipsed all other instructional activity during its scheduled week in December.

“Anyone who has participated in this event in the past, myself included, can speak to this not being the case,” she said. “Learning not only continues, it is applied.”

Brinton said the project comprised a math-a-thon, a math lesson dedicated to planning and budgeting on Tuesday and an hourlong field trip to Stop & Shop on Thursday, followed by an hour of packing 25 to 35 food baskets.

She also asked the committee to consider the impact of the food baskets at the holidays for needy families and the civic lessons the children learn

“This project teaches something that we don’t measure on tests — character is developed, passion is kindled, teamwork is strengthened — and, yes, math and life skills are actually applied and a partnership with WARM is enhanced,” she said. “With approximately 82 homeless families within our district, these are students helping students, they are helping their friends.”

Mike Sullivan, whose son, Hayden, is on the team that participates in the exercise, asked that the project be reinstated. He pointed to the longevity of the activity, which supports the needy. He also said that the students learn about nutrition and how to read food labels, which ties in scientific content.

“This also involves executive leadership skills such as budgeting, time management, project management and team-building, which are so highly sought after by colleges these days,” he said. “I dare say many colleges will not look at PARCC scores but many will ask about this activity if they see it on a college application.”

Joy Cordio, volunteer coordinator at the WARM Center, said the project teaches compassion and understanding for fellow students who are less fortunate than themselves.

“They’re gaining knowledge that no book will ever give them,” she said. “There is obviously a math component, but it touches on humanity.”

Maya Champ, a sophomore at Westerly High School and a former participant, said the project made her aware of poverty in Westerly and the importance of giving back to the community. She said the team had raised more than $30,000 in donations since the project’s inception and had created about 775 food baskets. Another former team member, Abigail Turano, a high school sophomore, said the project contributed to “raising properly informed, genuinely moral citizens” and offered “valuable lessons that couldn’t possibly be taught in school.”

Jordan Babcock, an eighth grader and team member who participated in the project last year, said it was worth it to take some time away from the classroom to learn lessons not taught in school.

“Not only did we learn mathematical things, we learned real world things that we won’t learn in school,” she said. “We learned kindness and giving back.”

Asking the superintendent to reconsider, Russ Partridge, executive director of the WARM Center, said he understood the struggles the School Committee and the superintendent have in meeting standards, but he emphasized that the project helps to fashion citizens who will later volunteer in the community.

“When some of the kids come through on the first day, they say, ‘I didn’t know that kids my age were struggling with food insecurity; I’m really glad I came,’” he said. “And then two or three years later, that same student comes back to volunteer or to do their senior project at the WARM Center. What a lesson, it’s invaluable what this teaches to our students who are coming up.”

After listening to proponents of the project for nearly an hour, Garceau did not change his position. He said the district supported charitable endeavors but a new approach was needed.

“We are asking people to rethink this; just because we’ve always done it this way does not mean for a second this is the only way it can be accomplished,” he said.


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